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Answers to Introductory Questions about Financial Aid for College

Mark Kantrowitz

November 22, 2010

I am a high school junior and an Upward Bound scholar. I do not have any way to pay for college and I really want to attend. How do I apply for financial aid? What are the requirements? Do I have to pay for anything? What advice do you have for me if I do receive financial aid? — Alexis M.

Financial aid for college may seem complicated, with an entire language of cryptic acronyms like FAFSA, SAR and EFC, but there are only a few simple steps you need to take to apply for financial aid.

There are two main types of financial aid, merit-based aid and need-based aid. Scholarships and merit-based aid are awarded based on academic, athletic or artistic talent, or other criteria of interest to the scholarship sponsor. Need-based aid is based on financial need, the difference between college costs and your ability to pay.

To find merit-based aid, register for free at Fastweb.com to search for scholarships that match your background. There are scholarships available for students at all grade levels, including grades K-12 and current college students, so the sooner you start searching for scholarships, the more you will find. (Other free scholarship databases can be found on the FinAid site at www.finaid.org/scholarships.) When completing your personal background profile on Fastweb, take the time to review all of the choices in the optional questions. Students who answer the optional questions match twice as many scholarships, on average, as students who answer just the required questions. The Fastweb scholarship matching service is updated daily, and you will receive email notification when there is a new scholarship that matches your personal background profile. The Fastweb and FinAid sites are free.

To apply for need-based aid, submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, as soon as possible after January 1 of your senior year in high school. This form is used to apply for student financial aid from the federal and state government as well as for financial aid from most public and private colleges and universities. The FAFSA is submitted annually. (A Renewal FAFSA will be submitted during your freshman, sophomore and junior years in college.)

If you have questions about completing the FAFSA, there are several sources of free help. The US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Information Center operates a toll-free hotline at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can ask your high school guidance counselor or the financial aid administrator at a local college for help. Several states operate a free program called College Goal Sunday that provides hands-on help with the FAFSA on weekends in January and February. Visit www.collegegoalsundayusa.org to see if and when it is offered in your state. There is also information and advice in the FAFSA section of FinAid and in the FAFSA articles on Fastweb.

These days almost everybody submits the FAFSA online, at www.fafsa.ed.gov. If you do not have a computer, ask your high school or local public library if there’s a computer you can use. Otherwise, call 1-800-4-FED-AID and they can send you a printed version of the form. The online form is better, since it is a “smart” adaptive form that will skip unnecessary questions and detect the most common errors.

Your college may also have its own supplemental form. About 250 mostly private colleges use a form known as the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form. This form is similar to the FAFSA, but typically asks more detailed questions. You can find this form online at profileonline.collegeboard.com. (Note that there is no “www” as part of this web site’s address.)

You will receive a “financial aid award letter” from the colleges after you’ve submitted the FAFSA and other financial aid forms. This letter will summarize the types and amounts of financial aid you will receive. The financial aid will include gift aid that does not need to be repaid, such as grants like the Pell Grant. It will also include self-help aid, such as loans and work-study.

The prospect of taking on debt to pay for college can be frightening, especially if you will be borrowing more money than your parents earn in a year. You should try to minimize your debt, because every dollar you spend using student loan money will cost you about two dollars by the time you’ve paid off the debt. One of the best ways of minimizing debt is to enroll at a less expensive college, such as an in-state public college. But so long as you don’t borrow excessively and you major in a field of study with good job prospects, you should be able to repay the debt after graduation.


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